Are you a Bad Literary Consumer?
Tomorrow night, Friday February 3, at a fundraiser for the incipient magazine Tense in the West Village, I will be reading passages from my forthcoming cover story for the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, on the antitrust trial that transpired in Washington, D.C., in August, resulting in the government’s enjoinment of the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. I will be joined by my Dimes Square castmate Bob Laine. Tickets here.
It came out yesterday that BDG media is closing Gawker, which it restarted under editor Leah Finnegan in 2021. This iteration published a lot of excellent cultural criticism from young writers, as well as a few pieces I wrote. I’m putting one below and will post the rest soon because you never know what might happen to abandoned websites. Many thanks to my editor and old friend Brandy Jensen.
A RESPONSE TO N+1
From the summer of 2021
I am not the most famous book reviewer in America, but I’ve been reviewing books on and off for 21 years, and it is how I make my living, such as it is. I have written hit pieces, appreciations, and mixed reviews. I’ve written synthesizing essays that attempted to characterize the literature of a brief era. I’ve had a few jobs as a literary editor. I’ve had a staff critic job. I’ve had years of pure freelancing. Sometimes the money has been good, and sometimes it hasn’t. Why do I do this? I enjoy writing criticism, performing literary analysis, and reading and thinking about books. One of my friends once justified our activities by saying you have to help create the literary culture you want to be part of.
When younger critics ask me for advice, I encourage them. I tell them to read widely and to immerse themselves in the criticism of the past. I suggest that they seek out subjects that will bring out their own best writing and to try always to be expanding their range. I hardly talk to them about money because the money just isn’t good. You do criticism because it’s what you’re interested in doing. I tell them to avoid my vices. Lord knows I repeat myself. I write again and again about the same writers. I make variations on the same points. As someone once pointed out, I use the word “glimpse” too much. The nicest thing anybody ever said to me is that I’m the only writer she knows who keeps getting better. I’m 44 years old, and I have yet to publish a book.
On Tuesday, n+1 ran an essay called “Critical Attrition: What’s the Matter with Book Reviews?” (On the cover of its new issue, the piece is billed as “LITERARY MERCENARIES.”) As usual with essays in its front-of-the-book “Intellectual Situation” section — the very first of which in 2004 was about negative reviews in The New Republic — the essay, written by the magazine’s editors, is unsigned. It deploys composite characters and other fictional elements to make a few points about the current book criticism scene. Nothing jarring to a regular reader about the essay’s style, but I found the points it made about book reviewing mostly irrelevant, distracting, and ultimately anti-intellectual.
The history of essays about the problems with book reviewing is as old as book reviewing itself, so I won’t rehearse it here. (My own contribution to the genre, about the erosion of reviews and their replacement with “books coverage” — that is, lists, recommendations, q&a’s, etc., all of which are intellectually worthless — appeared in Harper’s in 2019.) The n+1 editors focus on four problems: the lay reader’s suspicion that critics are lying, mostly through inflationary criticism; the muddled motives of the occasional reviewer; the muddled motives and unsatisfying experiences of the critic-practitioner; and the sorry state of what they term the Contemporary Themed Review, a genre mostly practiced by full-time critics.
Let’s begin with “the Contemporary Reader,” or “the earnest reader.” (Are there legions of ironic readers out there? I hope so.) This reader pays attention to jacket copy on books, uses the website Goodreads, searches Twitter for literary opinions, and doesn’t know very much about the literature business. I’ll be honest, I have no respect for this fictional character or anyone in real life who resembles him.
The next two parts of the essay attempt to explain corrupting factors in the book reviewing process that bring about the reviews that this reader doesn’t trust. But let’s linger on this reader for a moment. He’s buying books, presumably books that he’s going to spend many hours of his life reading. Yet when he has read a book he doesn’t like, he feels misled by its marketing. Is he as much of a mark for movie posters? For shoe ads? For vape juice promotion? This reader is simply bad at being a consumer. He doesn’t know how to spend his money on products that will please him. He is not in touch with his own taste and ways of satisfying it. The fact that he puts his trust in jacket copy, Goodreads (the literary equivalent of going antiquing in a garbage dump), and Twitter suggests that he has few friends or at least few friends who read.
What would a good literary consumer look like? Such a person would have a sense of their own taste and would find critics who, if not exactly sharing that taste, might at least speak to it. It does not mean looking at their mangled remarks on the back covers of books, but reading them in magazines and newspapers. Do you know the names of movie critics? If you don’t you’re flying blind, and the same holds with books. Book criticism doesn’t abide by the same logic of Wirecutter or the thumbs-up/thumbs-down popularized on At the Movies. Bad Literary Consumers (BLCs), I have a message for you: You are not hopeless. There are dedicated critics out there that you can trust or learn to mistrust in the right way (you may find that you love the books I hate and vice versa). All you have to do is learn our names and read the magazines we write for (most of them have very gentle paywalls). We will help you ascend from the status of literary consumer to enlightened reader. Stick with us and we might even turn you into a Real Literary Person (RLP).